The first time I listened to The Grateful Dead was six hours before my brother's funeral.
My brother and I sat on opposite ends of the sibling timeline (he, the oldest at 37, with me at 26), which I only tell you because I've learned that talking about his life is an easier way to transition into his death. Greg was so many wildly weird things, so kind and so curious—an international marathoner, an Iraq War veteran, a burrito connoisseur—but above all else, my brother was a Deadhead.
He collected bootleg tapes from voyagers before his time and plastered his surfaces in dancing bear decals. While I wore the arms out of my bedazzled "Hanson LIVE!" T-shirt, Greg spent his nights tucked away in his bedroom—in the heat of the grunge rock movement—diligently waiting his way through a "Dark Star" jam to dissect a 15-second sample on acoustic guitar.
I outgrew my shirt by the end of summer, but Greg's devotion never lost its shape or color. He listened his way through his twenties and thirties—dipping in and out of trouble along the way —until the day he left us all breathlessly missing him. Five years into recovery, and three months after he scored seats for The Dead's Fare Thee Well Tour, Greg overdosed on fentanyl-laced heroin.
With that, I can assure you: Some pain is so loud that it loops back around to total silence.
Still, you listen.
Immediately after Greg died—before flowers and donations and the bizarre realties of rental caskets and cremation wands—my brothers and my sister and my mom and dad and I perused a list of Dead songs to pull lyrics for Greg's prayer cards. Why summon Jesus when you have Jerry?
Even amidst the chaos, it was abundantly clear: The Dead was Greg's religion. They kept him sane overseas and in rehab and on the road, as evidenced by the handwritten chord charts we found in his boot camp tactical warfare books. He left melodic traces in every pocket of his absence, on worn-down loose leaf and Taco Bell napkins, and, as we all tossed around ideas for final farewells—my brothers and my sister readily reciting one-liners from songs they'd heard on the road with Greg—I quickly realized how little I knew about the language my brother spoke so fluently.
Like any good kid, I blame my parents.
My mom let me blast Broadway's greatest hits throughout my high school musical theater kick—mid-track "Corner of the Sky" skip and all—and my dad mostly fell for the rhythms of Chicago and The Tragically Hip. In their defense, they were busy being the best people I know to charm me with trademark hits of their '60s dorm common room. That was Greg's role—he found the source material before I was old or wise enough to feign interest. He himself built the legacy that my family picked apart between grief-fueled tissue breaks and, as we sorted and looked and listened diligently for him, I knew it was my turn to dive in—to seek and master the music and the meaning that my brother left behind for safekeeping.
It only seemed right to begin with the classics: "Friend of the Devil," "Touch of Grey," etc. Those songs were all fine and well, but were snacks compared to the real meat of the catalogue—things I'd read about on Deadhead forum message boards. It was clear, even in the earliest stages, that most Deadheads measured worth in length—not inches or feet, but minutes, sometimes many of them. Any song that was really worth listening to was worth listening to for 23 minutes.
My rate of digestion was destined to change. Where I'd originally planned to get through an album or two a week, I realized I could effectively circle the moon and come back before finishing an uninterrupted live version of "Saint of Circumstance." That's why Dead fans are Dead fans until the end, it seems. They need a whole lifetime to just absorb a single pass through the catalog—which, for me, was a particularly lonesome reality to process.
I didn't want to risk the chance of missing an anthem that meant a lot to Greg. I hated the idea of choosing the wrong version of the wrong song and overlooking a line or two that carried his voice or his spirit. Needles in haystacks. I also didn't want to become one of those people who claims they heard their late uncle's laughter in the background bass of a Neil Diamond B-side—but, like all great surveyors, I remembered I already paid the $9.99 Spotify Premium charge for the month, so I forged on. I stopped planning and hoping and looking. I just listened.
One month led to another. Waking up meant plugging in and brushing my teeth to a "Jack Straw" solo—then driving to work and wading my way through a rare mandolin cameo. It took a few weeks before the music started to really sink in and I could whisper a word or two along. After a few months, lines would pop up and color the entire day—sometimes with profound joy, other times with sadness. I had a particularly lousy Monday once when I stumbled upon "If I Had The World To Give," which, spoiler, I'd give it to you. I thought about all the things I wished I could have given, or, at the very least, shared—how unfair it was that I truly only got to lead half a life with him, how badly I wished I'd been born sooner so that I could be a keeper of his childhood like my parents and siblings were and would be. Then "China Cat Sunflower" interrupted and things kept on—dare I say it—truckin' along.
Perhaps the greatest revelation came about six months into my studies when I spent a whole week on "Terrapin Station." I avoided the song for a long time because of its storied history—its rise and fall and resulting notariety—but when I finally let it roll on a drive to a friend's birthday party, I instantly fell for every narrative turn. There was so much to digest—admittedly a lot more than any Hanson song I'd ever heard—and as I tried to unpack my feelings over dinner, it was clear that I was effectively more alone than ever.
"You wouldn't believe how crazy the gallop gets around 13:45," I'd said, nodding my head to an invisible rhythm as my friends snuck away for more relevant conversation. On the way home, I cycled through the track twice more and, sometime after the initial novelty wore off, I realized that in loving something so purely and so deeply—and in feeling strangely honored to be alone with its intricacies, almost all of which were lyric-less—I wasn't simply closer to Greg. I was Greg. I was listening as or with and not for. He was there, so quietly, so clearly.
In the end—or, in this case, the beginning—we chose "Stella Blue" for my brother's final hymn: In the end, there's just a song/comes cryin' up the night/through all the broken dreams and vanished years. Miraculously, nothing changed. The song was, and is, just a song. It plays just the same as it used to play. He's still gone. We're still here. I'm still learning and digging and waiting.
Still, it's nice to listen—and to know, somewhere, someone waits.